Will Al-Jazeera Change Malaysia?

Given the docile nature of the local press, Malaysia seems a curious base for one of the world’s most aggressive and controversial news organizations. But now at least a handful of the country’s 23 million citizens can wake up to 24-hour-a-day English-language broadcasts from Kuala Lumpur by Al-Jazeera, the television channel whose facilities US President George W Bush once joked idly about bombing because of its supposedly anti-US bias in reporting on the invasion and occupation of Iraq.

Although the Malaysian government says it is fully behind the network, authorities are cautiously limiting Al-Jazeera’s transmission to ASTRO All Asia Networks’ direct-to-home satellite television service, which covers just a sliver of the population. It is all well and good to praise the Muslim cause from afar but given Malaysia’s racial makeup and authoritarian government, Al-Jazeera’s penchant for hard reporting may not be to the liking of officials who could find the new channel an uncomfortable new resident in a media neighborhood that is virtually locked down by the ruling party. It seems doubtful that authoritarian rulers in Singapore, China and Brunei will allow in the channel. (In the US, no cable network has seen fit so far to carry Al-Jazeera English, which began airing in mid-November, and is available in the US only via satellite or on the Web.)

Headquartered in Doha and funded as an independent Arab voice by the Emir of Qatar, the network has been on the air since 1996, in the process breaking the stranglehold of western channels like CNN in the Middle East. The war on terror and the invasion of Iraq made its name as the channel rankled the Bush administration and other western officials with its willingness to broadcast views at considerable odds to theirs, particularly video statements by the fugitive al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and others. While western channels were squeamish about airing the most graphic war footage from Iraq or the worst of the Abu Ghraib prison abuses, al-Jazeera felt no such qualms. It especially angered American officials by airing the beheading of hostages by Iraqi insurgents but such coverage has made it by far the most influential news source in the Middle East, with as many as 50 million viewers, a figure rivaled only by the venerable BBC.

The channel has stood broadcasting on its head by seeing things from an Arab perspective. Suicide bombings are reported as mere bombings, for example, because that is how they are understood in most of the Middle East. The channel also is openly sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, providing a mirror image of the way most American journalists bend over backwards to give the Israelis the benefit of the doubt.

Al-Jazeera editor in chief Ahmed Sheikh told a Swiss newspaper recently that he feels vindicated by events in Iraq. Criticized by Washington for its aggressive coverage of the insurgency, the channel seems to have been right all along, even as US and British networks were celebrating the quick defeat of Saddam Hussein. “The U.S.A. is occupying a country and one has not only to expect, but also to accept that the people there resist,” Sheik explained. “You see yourself: in the end, the American Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, had to resign.”

Now the English channel’s news cycle will include a four-hour broadcast from the Kuala Lumpur bureau, 11 hours from Doha, five from London and four from Washington DC. Al-Jazeera’s goal is to cover aggressively events in the “global south,” trying to do for the developing world what it has done in the Middle East. It also says it aims to be the first broadcaster to transmit in high-definition (HDTV) format throughout the world.

Al-Jazeera, however, doesn’t just offend Washington. It is a powerful voice for reform in the repressive Arab world, where there is little press freedom. Could it do the same in authoritarian corners of Asia?

The world sometimes tends to forget that Southeast Asia is also an Islamic region and that Indonesia, for example, is the world’s most populous Muslim nation. The southern Thailand insurgency, the fundamentalist Jemaah Islamiyah network in Indonesia, and the various Muslim rebels in the Philippines make up what Washington describes as “the second front on the war on terror”. They are also great stories, ripe for Al-Jazeera’s English coverage during a time when the US networks, CNN, Star News and the BBC have all been shrinking coverage and closing bureaus in the region.

With their journalists and resources headquartered in Kuala Lumpur, they may even be able to change how Malaysia looks at itself. This is what many people here are waiting for with considerable anticipation, a perspective other than CNN, BBC or the tame local news media.

With most of Al-Jazeera’s bureaus located in developing countries, audiences with access to the channel are already getting analysis and commentary of a new kind, broadcast through superb technology. Stories rarely seen before about poorer communities and social problems in less-well-known countries are already common fare. CNN might give the violence in East Timor passing attention because its resources are stretched thin with few correspondents based in the region. But Al-Jazeera has aired detailed reports on East Timor and it treats the Thai insurgency as a running story not as a special feature to be focused on briefly and forgotten for weeks at a time, as tends to be the case on CNN and the BBC.

It remains to be seen how the channel will affect Malaysia and Singapore, where local coverage is oh-so-polite and broadcasters risk losing their licenses if they offend the ruling powers. In Malaysia's case, a furious debate within the United Malays National Organization, the country's biggest ethnic political party, about supposed threats to economic preferences enjoyed by Malays has occasioned renewed discussion about race, religion, privilege and patronage. Al-Jazeera recently aired a piece headlined “Racial Tensions on Rise in Malaysia” for example, that includes comments from all sides looking at recent spats inside UMNO – you won’t find that on the evening news in KL.

Al-Jazeera English, it is hoped, can air voices of discontent that are usually drowned in a tide of self-censorship for fear of contravening Malaysia’s restrictive Printing Presses and Publications Act. The urban, educated middle class is scrambling to watch Al-Jazeera English on Astro because they hope to see what the mainstream press does not give them--balanced and intelligent analysis of Malaysian issues.

It is unlikely, however, that Al-Jazeera English will be allowed to have any real impact on Malaysia’s rural residents. While the majority of rural Malays understand basic English, Al-Jazeera’s broadcasters practice a level of English that may be too high for the kampong or village folks. Broadcasters include Riz Khan and Veronica Pedrosa, both of whom were staples on CNN, as well as Rageh Omar, Hamish MacDonald and Divya Gopalan, who together form a mix of experienced and younger journalists. The Arabic version of Al-Jazeera is also translated into Bahasa Melayu and aired on ASTRO, but this hardly guarantees full coverage as most kampongs do not subscribe to the costly satellite channel.

Certainly Singapore, which has shown itself to be one of the world’s least hospitable countries for foreign media organizations that offend the ruling elite, is unlikely to allow Al-Jazeera to beam into the island state. Even Malaysian TV channels, for that matter, cannot be transmitted to Singapore. (Likewise, Singapore-based Channel News Asia has not been given the green light to transmit to Malaysia.)

Across the region, the English channel is only available on a handful of cable systems or on the Internet. For information on how to watch Al-Jazeera English you can click into Al-Jazeera’s home page for information. It is not aired yet in the Philippines, Brunei, China or Singapore and it is only on minor system in Thailand and Indonesia.

So far Malaysia seems proud that it has been chosen as Asia’s host country for Al-Jazeera English but the channel has stared down much tougher regimes than Malaysia’s on its home turf, criticizing corrupt Arab rulers to the delight of viewers. Stay tuned to see how its Southeast Asian hosts might react to similar treatment.